Author's Note: Insert standard disclaimer here. I own nothing; I'm just playing in someone else's 'verse.
This is the first chapter of a little two-shot birthday fic, for the ever-wonderful Phnxgirl. She asked for something I've never done before – short and fluffy, with a maximum word count of 20k. I've agonised over this fic more than a fluffy fic has any right to be agonised over because ohmigod-fluff-is-so-hard!, and I have no idea if I've met the mark… At any rate, I hope you enjoy!
At The High Table
۞ Part One ۞
Hermione hurried into the Great Hall in a breathless fluster, her hair escaping its knot and her cheeks reddened from her half-run through Hogwarts' secret passages in order to get here on time. And she had, thank goodness – the returning students were just beginning to file into the Hall for the beginning-of-year feast. She slipped into her seat at the teachers' table with a stifled sigh – second from the end, Neville to her right and an empty seat awaiting the new Muggle Studies professor to her left.
"I lost track of time," she told Neville, in answer to his questioning – and rather amused – look. Ugh, she must look a right state for even Neville to notice it.
"Double-checking lesson plans?"
"Triple-checking, more like," Hermione admitted ruefully, transfiguring her dinner plate into a mirror and trying fruitlessly to restore order to her hair.
"You'll be fine, Hermione. You know that. You did fine last year," Neville said reassuringly over the students' hubbub, but Hermione thought it was easy for him to be blasé, given it was his sixth year teaching Herbology. This was to be her first full year teaching Transfiguration, and her first attempt at creating a curriculum.
"Last year I only had to teach for just over half the final term, and I mostly used the lesson plans Professor Kindlethorpe had prepared before he'd left," she pointed out nervously.
"You've had every last detail planned out since halfway through the holidays, Hermione. All neatly organised and colour-coded. You're more well-prepared than I am," Neville admitted with a endearing smile that highlighted how handsome he'd become – Hannah was a lucky woman. "You're worrying over nothing. Just like you used to with exams."
"I suppose you're right," Hermione agreed, giving up on her rather frizzy bun and tapping the transfigured mirror to return it to a dinner plate. She was an incurable perfectionist when it came to her work, and it was good to be reminded of that sometimes – that her impossibly high personal standards were not the standard by which every else judged her.
"Thanks, Neville." She smiled at him and then settled back in her chair as the buzzing of students' chatter began to die away.
The brand-new little first years were Sorted without any tears over being put in 'the wrong House', and Hermione found herself watching them, amazed at how young they seemed. She couldn't believe that she had ever been so little – and the amount of danger that she, Harry, and Ron had gone tearing into at that age. Merlin! They had been far too young to be doing all that. It seemed utter madness, looking back at it from fifteen years in the future.
The wise old age of twenty-seven, Hermione thought self-deprecatingly, and then Professor McGonagall was introducing the two new Professors. Care of Magical Creatures – Hagrid had finally retired, although he was keeping his hut – was to be taught by Karl Milngavie, a man Hermione vaguely remembered as being a Hufflepuff three years ahead of her at school.
"And please give a warm welcome to our new Muggle Studies professor," Minerva began, and Hermione sat forward in her seat eagerly. She was intensely curious to find out who the teacher would be, partially because Muggle Studies was a subject understandably close to her heart, although it would drive her insane to try to teach it, and partially because Minerva had only secured the teacher this week and been very cagy about who she had retained. And for some reason, it had felt rude to ask the Headmistress outright.
"– Another past Hogwarts student, Professor Draco Malfoy," Minerva finished.
Hermione's fingers spasmed on the cloth napkin in her lap.
This had to be some sort of sick joke. Or a hallucination brought on by the stress Hermione had been feeling lately. And she thought she preferred the prospect of incipient insanity than the spectre of having to work with Draco Malfoy. Please dear Merlin, no. She shot Neville a horrified, disbelieving look, silently mouthing: "Malfoy?"
He shrugged helplessly at Hermione, apparently no more well-informed than her. The Hall, which had resounded with the polite applause of students and teachers at Professor Milngavie's introduction, was now silent as a tomb. Minerva cleared her throat rather sternly and began to clap, prompting a smattering of weak applause, as – horror of all horrors – Draco Malfoy walked in.
Hermione did not applaud. She was too busy trying to shred apart a linen napkin with her bare hands, jaw clenching so hard she thought she might snap her teeth off. Malfoy sat down beside her and she couldn't help glancing at him – the first time she had seen the wizard in over seven years, so yes, she was perversely curious if she were honest.
He was tall and lean in well-tailored black robes, clean-shaven, his white-blonde hair shorter than she'd ever seen it on him. The sharp edges to his features had blunted with age and he no longer looked like a ferret, but in fact was rather attractive. A shame about his personality; no matter how aesthetically acceptable he might be, who Malfoy was as a person made him ugly.
He caught Hermione staring and with one arch of his eyebrow, managed to make her feel about two inches tall, and flush with embarrassment.
"Granger. Long time no see." He was the embodiment of cool civility as he nodded to Hermione, and her napkin tore in her fists.
"Not long enough," she snapped, quiet but vehement, and then turned her attention to Minerva's welcoming speech, inwardly stewing.
How dare he sit there with that faint, smug smile on his face? How dare he act like she had any cause whatsoever to feel anything other than contempt for him? He didn't deserve to sit at the teachers' table, and to think of him as Muggle Studies teacher? Merlin, it was laughable - worse than laughable. It was offensive. What on earth had Minerva been thinking?
Hermione pointedly ignored him over the course of the rest of the feast, and luckily he left immediately afterward, allowing her to stay and question Minerva about Malfoy.
"Give him a chance, Hermione. The young man has changed since the war," was Minerva's crisp response, and then upon seeing Hermione's face: "And if you can't bring yourself to give him that chance then please at least trust my judgement, Hermione."
Hermione couldn't argue with that reasoning, unfortunately.
They were now two weeks into the term, and Hermione still wasn't used to eating meals beside Draco Malfoy. It came at her like a horrible shock at most meals. Sitting and chatting with Neville, only to be rudely startled by Malfoy's sudden appearance beside her. It left her feeling like she had to be constantly on guard against him, which wore her nerves to a frayed thread and only served to make her snippier. She tried to politely ignore him but much of the time failed dismally, leading to discreet warfare between them.
He seemed to find it amusing.
She really had tried to give Malfoy a chance – the war had ended a long time ago, after all, and she had barely thought of him since. She hadn't had nightmares about the torture in the manor in years, and she'd thought it fair at the time that he hadn't been sent to Azkaban. But Merlin's pants, she could not stand him. She always resolved to be polite, but then he sat down beside her and she just wanted to…smack him in the face. The git.
Minerva had essentially told Hermione to suck it up and behave like an adult, which although couched in kinder terms still had stung.
Neville sympathised, but told Hermione with well-meaning bluntness that she would find Malfoy a lot easier to get along with if she stopped baiting him. It took her three days of self-righteous offence before she realised with a pang of shame that she did bait Malfoy. That had been a rude awakening, and yet she couldn't seem to stop.
Ron had been up in arms on her behalf when she'd seen him last week, and very pleasant to vent to, but a little too hot-headed. Hermione didn't think it would be appropriate to slip a love potion in Malfoy's food that made him fall madly in love with Filch, hex him, or turn him into a ferret. She didn't dislike the wizard that much, and besides, she was better than that.
She could have avoided some mealtimes – teachers were expected to attend most but not all meals – but that would have looked like he had succeeded in driving her away. And yes, she could have swapped seats with Neville, but that would also have looked like she was running away from Malfoy, and besides, she…didn't really want to swap.
Today at least she had escaped the horrors of eating with Malfoy; it was Saturday, and she was having lunch with Harry at The Three Broomsticks. They were winding up the usual exchange of news about friends and family, and Hermione felt pleasantly full and cheerful, and just a little bit tipsy from the firewhiskey Harry had pressed on her.
"And how's little James?" He was just gone three months old now, and Hermione didn't see nearly enough of him. Harry beamed with fatherly pride.
"Smiling and laughing at everything now, and sleeping five hours through the night."
"Ginny must be glad of that."
"Merlin, yes. And so am I. Gin does not do well with a lack of sleep, and she dumps all that lovely sleep-deprived rage on me. God she's frightening." Harry grinned, and shovelled another forkful of mash into his mouth. "So, have you managed to call a truce with Malfoy yet?" he asked through his mouthful, and Hermione wrinkled her nose up at his lack of table manners, sipping at the butterbeer she'd ordered to wash down the firewhiskey.
"No. And I'm unlikely to, either. He drives me utterly spare, Harry. Godric preserve me, I can't bear the thought of a whole year in close proximity to him." She groaned and slumped over her butterbeer miserably.
"Not a year, Hermione."
Her head jerked up. Had Harry heard Malfoy was leaving? He was one of the Aurors who conducted periodic inspections of the Malfoy manor for Dark artefacts – one of the conditions of Lucius Malfoy's sentencing; lifelong parole in order to avoid ten years in Azkaban. Harry had mentioned in passing that he was due to sweep the mansion when he'd fire-called Hermione a few days ago – he was on quite good terms with Narcissa Malfoy. Perhaps he'd heard something from the witch about Malfoy leaving the Muggle Studies post. Hope swelled up in her, absurdly strong.
"I know you plan on staying at Hogwarts for the majority of your working life, and as far as I know, Malfoy is probably going to remain there long-term too. So…"
Oh god. Oh dear Merlin, Harry was right. How on earth did Hermione not see that? She could end up working alongside Malfoy for the rest of her life.
"Kill me now, Harry," she moaned, with a small despairing sort of laugh. Eerily, Harry gave her the same look of fond exasperation that she used to give to him and Ron when she was trying to get them to study.
"Honestly, Hermione. I know Malfoy was a prat in the past, but he can't be all that bad if McGonagall thought he was worth hiring. Perhaps if you just gave him a chance, like McGonagall said…"
"I know, I know. I'm trying to, Harry! But then I see him sitting there –" Hermione waved her hands about as she tried to think exactly what it was Malfoy did that was so insufferable. Reading Muggle books, which for some reason irritated her madly? Silently sipping at his tea with a distant expression that was startlingly and disturbingly like Snape's? Smiling with superior amusement at the way she hitched her chair further away from him? Saying a civil hello to Neville and the other staff, but merely nodding to her?
It all sounded ridiculous, when she considered saying it aloud.
"Sitting there, existing," she finished pathetically, and Harry had the nerve to chuckle at her.
"You're not exactly being rational, Hermione."
She sighed and nodded in tired acknowledgement. "I know. Like I said: he drives me spare. I left rationality behind at least a week ago. He just has a way of getting under my skin, and I don't know why."
"Well, it is Malfoy. There's history there, and none of it good," Harry said, which sounded valid except it wasn't, and Hermione shook her head.
"I don't think that's why, Harry. Before he reappeared out of nowhere and took his position at the school I hadn't really thought of him in years. All that bad blood was well in the past." Hermione frowned. "Where was he all those years, anyway? He just up and disappeared from society not long after his trial, which was rather understandable, but it was a terribly long time to lay low only to pop up in the public eye as a teacher. And a Muggle Studies teacher at that! Have you ever seen him at the manor?"
"He was living in the Muggle world, Hermione," Harry said with surprise, as though that was something she should've known. "Going to a Muggle university. It was all over Witch Weekly when he began uni, around six years ago, I think it was. I just assumed that you'd heard about it, and didn't particularly want to waste time chatting about old enemies."
…Malfoy? At a Muggle uni? No… That made no sense. Hermione felt her old image of a hopelessly bigoted, arrogant Malfoy tilt and skew disconcertingly, her assumptions all of a sudden seeming rigid and unfairly judgemental. If Malfoy had freely chosen to live in the Muggle world for at least six years, and studied at a Muggle school, he must have changed. But she was so wrapped up in disliking him, she hadn't noticed any changes there might be. Merlin, she felt almost guilty now. She shook it off - she could think it over later, when she wasn't out at lunch and supposed to be good company.
"You know I don't take any notice of the gossip magazines, Harry." She gave him a teasing look. "And I didn't know you were a Witch Weekly subscriber."
He actually blushed. "Ginny gets them – I just flick through sometimes. Honest."
Breakfasts were always the worst; neither of them were naturally morning people – and honestly she could have done without knowing what sort of hours Malfoy preferred to keep – and so tensions were often high, to put it mildly. She picked at him, which provoked him into making digs at her, both of them grouchy and bleary-eyed as he had his tea and toast, and she, her coffee and fresh fruit.
Today was no different unfortunately, despite Hermione's renewed attempts to give Malfoy a chance since her lunch with Harry last week. If they were going to be working alongside each other for the foreseeable future, it would be easier if they could co-exist in peace.
Hermione had been up late marking fifth year essays - most of them utterly abysmal - and had managed to get precisely three hours of sleep. As a result she was hardly in a good mood, frizzy-haired and with shadows beneath her eyes as she scowled into her coffee. Neville and the other teachers knew her well enough to understand it was best to leave Hermione alone when she was like this.
Malfoy did not. Or maybe he had just decided to provoke her for once.
"Merlin, you look like utter shite, Granger. Did you –" he began in a low, sleepy voice as he sat down. Hermione glared daggers, and cut him off before he could insult her any further.
"Why thank you, Malfoy. How lovely of you to notice. Every witch just longs to hear how horrid they look and you've always so kindly obliged. And I appreciate the reminder, really I do." Hermione was bitingly furious, all thoughtlessly reactive vehemence, and when she'd snapped her mouth shut even she was taken back by just how angry she'd sounded.
Malfoy was staring at her blankly, his only sign of emotion the way his knuckles were white from clutching the teapot handle so hard. He almost looked…hurt.
"Did you have a rough night –" He started slowly, anger trembling beneath his quiet words. "– Was what I was going to ask, most sympathetically, before you went off on your bitchy and misguided little tirade."
Hermione went hot with mortification and a foolish defensive anger. "I –"
"I was trying to be friendly," Malfoy said slowly, as if she were a particularly stupid child, his grey eyes cool and a little crease appearing between his brows. Oh. Oh dear. Hermione cringed inwardly before sparking up again like an idiot.
"Well, seeing as you've never been friendly to me in your life, I can hardly be faulted for not recognising it, can I?" She stabbed a slice of pineapple angrily – fantasising that it was his hand she was impaling – and glared at him triumphantly. She had him on that point.
He frowned and stalled in giving an answer with the ridiculously flimsy implication that pouring his tea took all his focus, his face all exaggerated concentration. Irritating prat.
"Well?" she goaded; possibly immature and most likely unnecessary. She should have just let it go and gone back to ignoring him. Malfoy paused with his teacup hovering just beneath his lips, and gave her a tired look. It gave her a flicker of doubt about whether her behaviour was warranted, but that moment of doubt was drowned by her indignation and her enjoyment in taking her grumpiness out on him.
"Fine. You win, Granger. Does that make you happy, to hear me say it?" he said, and then took a measured sip of his tea.
"Not particularly, but then nothing you've ever done has ever made me happy, so…" She gave him a shirty little sneer that Ron would have applauded, and that she would be ashamed of later. "…Maybe I wouldn't recognise that either."
"Maybe." Malfoy shrugged lightly, refusing to rise to her barb, just eying her up and down with an assessing manner. No doubt he was taking in the full horror of her frazzled hair, dark-ringed eyes, tautly down-turned mouth, and wrinkled teacher's robes – the she-beast, newly emerged from her cave and seeking victims. She glared at him and he arched a brow. "Just drink your damned coffee, Granger, before you turn your wrath on poor Longbottom next."
Hermione seethed at that, at the way he had seen right through her and gotten to the truth of the matter; she was just lashing out at him because he was a handy target and she was in a bad mood. Embarrassment and shame swept up in her, and while she would feel bad for it later, in the heat of the moment she lashed out again.
"You deserve it though, Malfoy. Neville doesn't."
He scowled then; his own anger bleeding through his cool control.
"I…? I deserve…? Merlin, you're infuriating!"
"No more than you," she jabbed, but Malfoy just shifted his attention very deliberately to his breakfast and didn't respond. Didn't say another word right throughout breakfast, in fact, no matter how many surreptitious dirty looks she turned his way. It left her feeling stupidly…disappointed.
Malfoy was reading a Muggle book as he picked at his food distractedly; more focused on the book than his meal. Hermione did that too, sometimes. All right – she did that a lot. Malfoy looked different when he was lost in a novel, Hermione had observed over the past few days. His features softened, his brow furrowed slightly, he tended to gnaw gently on his lower lip, his eyes went a smoky grey instead of the stony look they usually had…aaand it kind of worried Hermione that she'd noticed all those little details.
Was that normal? It was hard not to notice, she rationalised. She had come to realise Malfoy actually looked somewhat appealing when he was absorbed in a book, and Hermione lost the otherwise ever-present and rather disconcerting desire to smack him in the face. That was definitely noteworthy. Definitely. And that was the only noteworthy thing about it. Not the way he looked like someone she could like if he weren't Malfoy. Because she didn't think that. At all.
Hermione tried to figure out what book it was that Malfoy was so enthralled by, but couldn't make the title out with mere quick, sneaky glances. She peered more closely at the thick book in his hands out of the corner of her eye, while stabbing blindly at the salad on her plate.
"Heinlein," he said abruptly without looking at her, reaching for his cup of tea and taking an absent sip. Hermione jumped and blushed. Caught in the act. He slid his gaze up from the book; eyes amused on her and still a soft, hazy grey.
"Oh. Which one?" she rallied despite her embarrassment. Now that she had been caught, she might as well sate her curiosity.
"Time Enough For Love," Malfoy answered, his expression shifting minutely and a guarded chill growing over his features. As if he was bracing himself for her snippy little verbal jabs, and Hermione was ensnared by the way his face changed in front of her. She saw him – really saw him – and there was none of the smug nastiness she always assumed in him, just cautious defensiveness.
"Oh," she said again, hearing the note of uncertainty in her voice, and so did he, damn him. She saw it on his face. Hermione was not an avid fan of science fiction, but if she had nothing else on hand she would read Heinlein, and enjoy it well enough. "Not a bad book, altogether – I've read it once or twice," she added unnecessarily, striving hard for civility. She would give him a chance to show exactly how it was that he'd changed for the better, if indeed he truly had.
"Is there a book you haven't read, Granger?" Faint curiosity in Malfoy's eyes, but his tone was prickly enough to set Hermione on edge. If that had come from a friend's lips she would have laughed, but Malfoy was not a friend and what might have been teasing banter just sounded combative. So she flinched back and frowned, her attempt at civility sliding away even as she groped at it with grasping fingers.
"Of course there is, Malfoy. Many of them, in fact." Blunt words to match her frown as she pointedly turned away from Malfoy, bringing the conversation to an awkward close. She could feel his eyes lingering on her for a few seconds before he snorted derisively and she heard the whisper of a page turning as the weight of his gaze lifted off her. She felt belatedly as though she had been inexcusably horrible, and found her appetite was gone as she stared down at her salad.
Hermione didn't know if the blame for it could be laid at Malfoy's feet or hers, but she did know she didn't like how she acted when she was around him.
That evening Hermione smiled at Malfoy as she sat down to dinner and he met her smile with a blank look, and then turned his face away. His eyes were cool and his mouth was set in a dead straight line, and she absently watched him in her peripheral vision as he ate, stupidly trying to see if the truth of who he was would be revealed in his features. She examined the straight sharp line of his nose, the bob of his Adams apple as he swallowed, his not white-blonde but instead improbably dark eyelashes, and the way the hinges of his jaw moved as he chewed.
All she discovered was that he had impeccable table manners, and was excellent at glowering at her – specifically her – without even looking once in her direction. Neither of which told her anything at all about who Draco Malfoy was now, and whether he was worth her giving him a chance at friendliness.
Weeks had passed without either of them exchanging a single word; not even a greeting. Hermione had been idly watching Malfoy though; taking note of what she saw of his interactions with others, and observing him at meals. She was determined to figure him out so she could categorise him, stick a label on him, and file him neatly away as 'changed and worth being friendly towards', or 'still an utter prat'. So far the evidence was inconclusive.
She sneaked a glance at him out of the corner of her eye as she sipped at her coffee, feeling quite bright and cheerful after a good night's sleep. Malfoy looked tired in comparison, and his short hair was an unstyled mess that could match Harry's as he stared stiffly at his untouched toast, tea in hand.
"Would you stop bloody staring at me?" He clattered his teacup hard back down into the saucer and glared at her, exuding waves of wrought up frustration. Hermione's cheeks flamed up red and she nearly choked on the grape she was chewing.
"What? I'm – I'm not staring at you!" She denied the words in a fierce whisper once she'd finished coughing and spluttering, acutely conscious of Neville beside her, and the chattering students at the long tables below the teachers' table.
"Oh really. Pull the other one, Granger, it's got bells on." He pinned her with his eyes. "You're a shit liar. If you've got something you want to say to me, just say it. But I swear to Salazar I cannot take another minute of you constantly staring at me with all the discretion of an angry troll, while deludedly thinking you're being sneaky."
"Well perhaps I'd be less inclined to –" Hermione fumbled for words that made her sound less like a creepy stalker. "– Observe you, and more inclined to speak to you if you weren't so…" Here she flailed a hand helplessly. "Stand-offish."
Malfoy gave her a dry look. "Come on, Granger. Why the fu– why in Merlin's name would I want to talk to you? Every time we've exchanged words you've, frankly –" He lowered his voice to a discreet mutter, mindful that they were hardly in a private place as he almost apologetically insulted her. "– been an utter bitch."
She narrowed her eyes and huffed. "Well so have you!" she snapped back without pause.
"…What?" The corners of Malfoy's lips curled up into an incredulous smile, real and genuine, all surprised amusement. "I've…been an utter bitch?"
Hearing him say it like that startled a laugh out of her. Hermione's skin flushed warm with it, and suddenly she wasn't angry or defensive anymore. For the first time since Malfoy had sat down beside her at the feast, she didn't have the unsettling desire to do just a wee bit of violence to him.
"Yes, Malfoy, you have been," she said, but she was grinning as she said it through her laughter, and he was grinning too. And there it was; the proof he'd changed, written in the upturned corners of his mouth and the crinkles at the outer edges of his eyes. It was somehow obvious; indisputable. Hermione blinked and snapped her eyes away from his, her laughter dying away as the import of the moment hit her.
Malfoy was apparently not the hateful prat that he had used to be. Not entirely, at least. She had shared a laugh with him. With Malfoy. What did that even mean?
Hermione looked back to Malfoy. Amused grey eyes unwavering on hers, and she sucked in a little breath at the shock of seeing Draco Malfoy look at her like that. As if he liked her. The moment swelled with awkward tension, and then his smile turned into a small smirk.
"Well. That's something I've never been called before."
"I can't imagine why not," she shot back pertly, hiding a fresh smile in her coffee. Malfoy snorted and took a bite of his toast, and then the world ticked on ever-so-slightly different.
"What are you reading?" Her eyes skimmed curiously over the book in Malfoy's long-fingered hands.
"Asimov." He flipped the book closed and showed her the cover – I, Robot – his thumb wedged between the pages to hold his place. Hermione hummed thoughtfully under her breath, her gaze lifting to Malfoy's.
"Interesting; I wouldn't have picked you for a sci-fi fan."
"You wouldn't have thought I'd ever deign to read a Muggle book at all, would you, Granger?" His voice was mild, but as always when they had these tentative little exchanges, tension lurked beneath the surface. Hermione had been making genuine efforts to be friendly to Malfoy but it was hard to change the habits of half a lifetime, although as ever he was faultlessly polite – unless she jabbed first, which she hadn't yet, thanks to an extremely tight leash on her natural instinct to do so.
Regardless, every interaction seemed just slightly awkward.
They greeted each other at the beginning of every meal, but didn't always speak past that; Hermione hardly had any desire to be Malfoy's best friend. Just friendly colleagues would do fine, thank you – the ability to sit beside him without wanting to tear her skin off and suffocate him to death with it. She squinched up her nose; now there was a vivid image.
Belatedly, she realised Malfoy was watching her as he chewed on his sandwich, waiting for her response.
"No. Well… Not until I discovered you'd been living in the Muggle world for the past half decade. Then it made a bit more sense."
"You only found that out last week?" He sounded disbelieving, and Hermione shrugged ruefully.
"Harry told me it was in Witch Weekly at the time, but I don't really pay attention to the gossip magazines."
"It was all over The Daily Prophet too, Granger, and you must read that – or were you living under a rock?" He seemed trapped between laughing at her ignorance and an inexplicable irritation at her, and Hermione hunched her shoulders slightly. Oh dear. Would it be awkward to tell him she'd preferred to keep away from any reminder that he'd still existed?
"I, er, specifically avoided reading anything that mentioned you. Or any other Death Eater," she hastened to add – an attempt to make it clear that it wasn't some personal hatred toward him on her part that fell utterly, horribly flat.
Malfoy's eyes widened and Hermione recognised the emotions that flickered on his paling face – shame, hurt, old pains revived. She swallowed hard as he jerked his left arm off the table with a rattle of jostled crockery, trying pointlessly to hide his arm in his lap.
"…I – Granger –" he began, still horribly ashen and those grey eyes filled to the brim with emotions that were too raw and personal for her to want to see on his face.
"Anyway I had no idea you'd gone to Muggle university, which explains why you're equipped to teach Muggle Studies, I suppose, having lived in the Muggle world," Hermione rushed out frantically before Malfoy could stumble on with whatever it was he had been trying to say, her heart pounding wildly and sickly in her chest. She forced out a bright, brittle smile. "I did wonder what Minerva was thinking to give you that post. But it makes sense now." She sounded like an idiot, babbling away while Malfoy sat and stared at her with that trapped, wounded expression on his frozen features. She dragged in a shaky breath that did little to settle her rattling nerves.
"So – so…why do you like science fiction?" she groped desperately, trying for normal – but god, had she ever put her foot in it. Her cheeks felt hot, and miserably she wondered if she were telegraphing the embarrassment she was feeling with a vivid blush. Malfoy's throat bobbed as he swallowed convulsively, and his eyes fluttered shut briefly, lashes casting spidery shadows beneath his eyes.
"I –" He opened his eyes – avoiding her gaze – and snapped his book closed with a crack that made Hermione jump. "I just remembered I have to, ah – I – ah, mark homework…" He shoved his chair back roughly, nodding to Hermione without meeting her eyes, and all but fleeing the Hall with a sharp, stiff-shouldered stride.
A throat cleared awkwardly beside Hermione, and she remembered Neville sitting right beside her, currently looking uncomfortable enough to sink into the floor by sheer will alone. She moaned inwardly, tugging at the ends of her hair – loose and fluffing about her shoulders.
"I bloody well drove him off, Neville," she bemoaned. "I'm trying to be nice and get to know him as – as a colleague if not a friend, and instead I actually drove him away from his meal." She waved unhappily at Malfoy's stack of sandwiches, only half gone. Neville's face went soft with sympathy.
"It was obviously an accident, Hermione. A slip of the tongue. It's not like you were trying to be mean." He patted her hand. "And to be fair, it was true."
"Yes, but it wasn't exactly tactful of me to bring it up, true or not." Not exactly tactful – that was possibly the understatement of the year. Hermione cringed remembering Malfoy's raw, unguarded reaction. "He probably thought I was throwing it in his face, and I wasn't, honestly. Oh Merlin, I'm so embarrassed."
"I know you weren't," Neville soothed her kindly. "And from the horrified expression you had going on there, I'm pretty sure Malfoy realised that too – he probably only left because it was…extremely, ah, awkward. Don't beat yourself up over it."
Neville jollied her out of outright and vocal self-flagellation and into light conversation about other things, but underneath her attempts to act normally, Hermione was very much beating herself up over her misstep. Merlin, she could never seem to say the right things – or even feel the right things – around Draco Malfoy. She dreaded the thought of sitting next to him at dinner, in oh…just several short hours time. Hermione groaned silently to herself at the thought, outwardly smiling and nodding as Neville talked.
" – and Hannah can laugh about it now, but what Gran thinks I have no idea…"
Author's Notes: So how did I do at my first foray into writing a fic that isn't dripping with angst, gore, and terrible feels? Please review and let me know if you liked it!